Packers' run defense prepared for stiff early-season tests
GREEN BAY – After spending their top two draft picks in two of the last three years on defensive backs, signing a featured cornerback for $2.8 million and setting a high standard for athleticism at their safety position, it would be derelict for the Green Bay Packers not to figure out how to put those athletes to use.
When you finish 31st in pass defense you direct as many resources as possible at the problem.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his staff have put considerable work into playing to their talent’s strengths, coming up with multiple schemes that use six defensive backs, including some they can use on running downs.
But if teams try to take advantage of those personnel looks by pounding the ball on the ground, the Packers don’t want to scrap their plans. You can imagine what the Seattle Seahawks might be planning on opening day with Eddie Lacy if Capers goes to his “nitro” defense, replacing one of his inside linebackers with safety Morgan Burnett.
He’d like that to be a big part of his winning formula this year.
"He’s putting it on our front seven to win and I think we’re going to take to that," nose tackle Kenny Clark said. "We like that pressure, we like that. I think we’ll do a good job."
Through two exhibition games, they have.
The Packers have held Philadelphia and Washington to a combined 41 carries for 111 yards (2.7 average) and no touchdowns. The long carry has been 14 yards.
During the first half of the two games, when the Nos. 1 and 2 units were on the field, they held the two teams to 24 carries for 30 yards (1.3 average) with a long run of nine yards. The numbers were especially significant Saturday night because Washington left its starters in the entire first half.
"I think we had a good game against the run," inside linebacker Jake Ryan said. "Everyone played in their gaps, everyone flew around. It was fun watching guys, just seeing one play we had about 10 guys on the ball.
"It’s great for our defense. That’s what we need every single play."
The real test should come when the Seahawks come to town in Week 1 and if it's not then, it will be in Week 2 at Atlanta. Regardless, exhibition games can only tell you so much since teams aren't necessarily setting up runs with passes or vice versa.
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Washington coach Jay Gruden did say before the game that he wanted to work on his rushing attack after a dismal performance against Baltimore in the opener
It's not like Washington has a franchise back, so the Packers can't get too excited. On the other hand, Washington dominated them on the ground with the same offensive line minus star left tackle Trent Williams during the regular season in 2016.
Rob Kelley rushed 24 times for 137 yards and three touchdowns in Washington’s 42-24 victory over Green Bay on Nov. 20.
‘They did a good job rushing against us last year,” Clark said. “They ran the ball 21 times (not including quarterbacks), and while we were in there (the No. 1s and 2s), they ran the ball 11 times for 10 yards.
“So it was like they were trying to establish the run. It was important for us to make a statement and coming out and us getting better and us playing overall defense.”
Most noticeable about the way the defensive line played against Washington was that it kept the offensive linemen off the linebackers. Joe Thomas (five), Blake Martinez (three) and Ryan (three) combined for 11 tackles, including two for loss.
Safety Marwin Evans was also active in the run defense and shot in from the edge to make the tackle on a key fourth-and-1 stop early in the second quarter.
Clark, Mike Daniels, Dean Lowry and Ricky Jean Francois rotated with the first unit with Brian Price and Christian Ringo mixing in after Daniels was taken out early in the second quarter. Just about all of them played two or more positions on the defensive line, including snaps at nose tackle.
“We have guys who can play a lot of different positions,” Ryan said. “Guys can go and play three-technique and then go and be an outside rusher. I think I saw BP (Price) out there rushing outside. We have a lot of guys with a lot of speed.”
Clark, who starts at nose tackle, doesn’t move around as much as some of the others, but when Capers went to his two-defensive linemen nickel look, he sometimes lined him up as the three-technique and sometimes as an end.
In one pass-rushing set, Lowry and Daniels lined up as wide rushing ends with outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry standing up where the defensive tackles normally would be.
“I mean, there’s different personnel groups and different schemes how they want to attack something,” Clark said. “They put guys in different positions. Sometimes you’ll see Clay and them go inside and us go outside. Sometimes you’ll see Mike at the nose, me at the nose.
“There’s all kinds of things we can do with our defense. We’re all versatile. We’re just using guys to the best of their ability.”
From a pass-rush standpoint, Daniels and Lowry will be counted on to produce along the inside. But Ringo has been far more active this summer than he was a year ago and finished with two hits on the quarterback against Washington.
When rookie Montravius Adams comes back, that will help the pass rush that much more.
As for holding up against the run, that’s something that will be an on-going test. The Packers favor quicker linemen more than behemoths – all but Price are under 315 pounds and no one is as large as former nose tackles Letroy Guion (322) or Mike Pennel (333) – and so late in the year the group could wear down.
Clark said that as long as the group plays to its strengths, it will succeed.
“Our defense is always a penetrating defense,” he said. “We want to penetrate and not let them establish the line of scrimmage. We’re getting more vertical, especially me. I was making mistakes by reading too much. I’m getting more off the ball. Mike he does a great job with penetration.
“We’re doing a good job of it so far. We just have to keep doing it.”